Wednesday, August 16, 2017


From the time that World War One commenced and throughout its years of slaughter, Karl Kraus (1987-1936) author and journalist, wrote his dramatic opus titled The Last Days of Mankind (Die letzten Tage der Menschheit). The original script written in German has 209 scenes in five acts plus a ten scene Prologue and an Epilogue written in rhymed verse. The play has approximately 500 characters. When The Last Days of Mankind was published in 1922, it was nearly 800 pages. Kraus states in the Preface to the published version: “The performance of this drama, whose scope of time by earthly measure would comprise about ten evenings is intended for a theatre on Mars.”
I read the first English translation of this play published in 1974 by Frederick Ungar.  This version was abridged and edited by Ungar. The Prologue and Epilogue were omitted from this edition as were dozens of scenes from each act. There is a 2015 publication of the complete text of The Last Days of Mankind in English published by Yale University Press. Two British scholars Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms translated this edition and they were awarded the Aldo and Jeanne Scaglione Prize on January 7, 2017 for their work by the Modern Language Association of America.

Kraus divided the Prologue into ten scenes and the first scene begins on June 28, 1914.  It was the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated. The next nine scenes represent the reactions and attitudes of the Austrian people over the days that lead up to and finally includes the funeral of the royal pair.

Over the course of the entire play one witnesses through Kraus’s eyes the tragedy of mankind, who he believed was on a path to self-destruction. Kraus repeatedly portrays that the methods of fighting a war in the early twentieth century were no longer related to the former ideals of combat heroism and national glory. There are scenes throughout this super drama that illustrate brutal military leadership, bungled diplomacy, greedy war profiteers, aggressive German expansion, injustices of many varieties, specious news reports, the gullibility of the public and many other acts that contributed to building and sustaining the cause for war. The Last Days of Mankind is a bold satirical antiwar drama.

In The Last Days of Mankind Kraus’s nearly 500 characters represent individuals from all strata of Austrian and German society.  He placed all the scenes of this play in public settings such as the Ringstrasse promenade across the street from the Vienna State Opera House. Thus the characters in The Last Days of Mankind are always expressing their thoughts in public settings.  It is through the characters use of language that one understands the changing living conditions and ideological shifts that evolve throughout the war years.

Kraus was considered to be an excellent observer of political events and a keen satirist of contemporary persons of significance. It has been estimated that nearly fifty per cent of the body of the play is based on real persons, actual news stories from Austrian and German newspapers, popular speeches, public events as well as attitudes that were held by the Austrian and German citizenry during the war. 
There are twenty-three debate scenes between two individuals named “Optimist” and “Grumbler.” It is believed by Kraus scholars that Grumbler expresses Kraus’s positions on the events being portrayed.  Optimist may have been modeled on Heinrich Lammasch (1853-1920), a professor of international and criminal law who served as Austria’s Prime Minister towards the end of the war. Grumbler represents the voice of reason in the discussions.

There is another consideration relating to understanding The Last Days of Mankind. This massive satire supports Kraus’s belief that “the satirist’s task is to reveal from the depths of language what its surface is trying to hide.” This quote is from the New York Times (July 14, 1985) article titled “Vienna Wry” and written by J. P. Stern. Kraus believed there was a major connection between language and morality. He further believed that the newspapers in Austria and Germany abetted and allowed the terrible deeds of war and helped to incite the public. He felt the public did not realize the full meaning of the news and “did not realize that words are also deeds.” It is this premise that supports his concept of the role of the satirist.

Acts One through Act Three primarily take place in Austria and Acts Four and Five have most of the scenes set in Germany. Each act progresses through the years of the war. Act One establishes the war culture and morality that quickly enveloped Vienna and the rest of Austria during the initial months of the war.  Act Two portrays how the people on the home front developed a brutality to one another as a result of the war. Also the horrors of the war are demonstrated. Since there are thirty-three different scenes in this act, the playwright depicts many different types and levels of cruel and savage acts.

Act Three demonstrates the changes that take place between the second and third years of the war both in Germany and Austria.  The scenes range from a German Command post to various Protestant churches. Since there are forty-six scenes in this act, Kraus demonstrated his point repeatedly in many different locations.

Act Four portrays the mood of 1917. There were many heavy losses during this year despite the number of victories.  The entrance of the United States into the war is also shown as a factor in the attitude of the civilians and the military personnel.  Act Five has fifty-five scenes. The stage directions reflect the mood of the last year of the war: “Evening, wet and cold. . .The wounded and dead line the streets.”  This scene portrays the approaching end, but it takes fifty-three more scenes before the last one that is set in a large banquet hall. The characters attending this feast are Officers of the German and Austrian armies.  During the banquet, the officers learn the Allies have broken through their lines. As a review of the war, many apparitions appear one at a time to show the worst acts of the war. The last apparition to appear is “The Unborn Son” who begs not to be born. His final lines are:
                   To these realms you must not drag us.
        Offspring are we but of corpses.
                    Here the air is noxious foul.
(The glow dies out. Total darkness. Then, on the horizon, the wall of flames leaps high.
 Death cries off stage.)

The Epilogue is titled “The Last Night” and written in rhymed verse.  It is set on a starless night on the battlefield, in the middle of all the terror of destruction. There are more scenes of destruction portrayed as well as repulsive social scenes. Eventually God’s voice is heard with the last words of the play: “I did not will it so.” Kraus italicized that line in the script. 
Kraus published The Last Days of Mankind in his journal titled Die Fackel (The Torch).  He founded this journal in April 1899. In 1911, he became the sole writer for each issue and continued in this mode until his death in 1936.  As soon as censorship of war writings was lifted, Kraus filled four special issues of Die Fackel with segments of The Last Days of Mankind. These publications in his journal began November 1918 and continued with April, June and August 1919 issues.  The Last Days of Mankind was revised and published in 1922 as a book.

My next post will discuss performances of The Last Days of Mankind.

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